THE GOD OF NEW POSSIBILITIES
Hannah was miserable. She was barren...unable to have children in a culture that didn't see women as having any worth beyond being able to produce offspring...preferably boys. Her husband loved her, but could not relate, and when she went to the temple and poured out her heart before God, the priest accused her of being drunk and gave her a lecture. But God heard Hannah and at last gave her a child; and in return for that great gift, she did an amazing thing. Hannah dedicated her new baby boy...Samuel...to the service of God, giving up her child at about age three to be raised in the temple by the priest Eli. She saw little Samuel only once a year after that to bring him new clothes.
I have always related to the story of Hannah. As some of you know, I have not been able to have children. Although our culture is not as harsh as Hannah's, I do know some of what Hannah felt like. I have been with those who, like Hannah's husband, couldn't understand why it was so important, why adopting a child or volunteering with children was not the same as having your own, or why it wasn't helpful to hear, "Well, when God's ready you'll have one." I have been through the humiliating process of infertility testing, having to discuss the intimate details of my life with stranger after stranger as I was passed like a tainted slab of meat from one doctor to another. And then finally when the woman my husband left me for quickly bore him a child, my identification with Hannah's plight became complete.
Now Hannah's story and my story are different in some ways. We were both barren. We both prayed and cried before God to grant us children. God heard and answered both of our prayers. Hannah was answered with "yes." I was answered with "no." But the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel tells us a truth that goes beyond the fact that God miraculously answered her prayer. It shows us something about God that is true for me as well as for Hannah, even though God's answer to my own earnest prayer was "No."
The story shows us that God is the God of new possibilities. Out of barrenness and despair, God creates life and hope. Where things were impossible, God made possibility. God created new possibilities for Hannah and for me. For Hannah those possibilities were in the child, for me they were in a new direction for my life. It was terribly hard for a long time to see that. When mothers stood in church on Mother's Day, I cried. I couldn't go to baby showers or do baptisms without using every last emotional resource I had. Those things are now a real joy to me, but it has been a long road. New possibilities sometimes come at a price, but I can see now that having my own children would have prevented me from doing what God has called me to do. Other people can and do deal with children and ministry together. I could not have done it. I would pay the price again for the new possibility that God has given me.
But the story of Hannah and little Samuel is more than the story of an individual woman whose prayer was answered with a miracle. We can look at this story as the personal history of a woman and her son. But if we stop there, I think we will have missed the main point. This story is not in Scripture because God gave Hannah a son. This story is in the Bible because Hannah gave her precious son back to God.
Israel was in the same boat as Hannah. From the time of Moses and Joshua several hundred years earlier, Israel had not had consistent leadership. Periodically God raised up charismatic military leaders called Judges--Samson, Gideon, Deborah and the like--to help Israel when enemies threatened the borders. But there had not been consistent, day to day leadership for some time. Israel in that sense was barren. The very last sentence of the book of Judges reads "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes."
The story develops with the story of young Samuel, who grows up to be the great prophet who will move Israel into kingship and will anoint God's chosen leader, King David, who is the ancestor of Jesus. Where it seemed like Israel was destined just to wander about in chaos, God is giving birth to a new possibility, a new kind of leadership, a new direction for God's people.
It is not an accident that the song of praise that Hannah offers to God in chapter two is very close in both style and content to the song of praise that Mary offers in the book of Luke when she knows she will bear Jesus. Hannah's child is preparing the way for King David, who will show Israel a different way. Mary is preparing the way for the one who will be called "Son of David." God is creating new possibilities where it seemed there were none either for Hannah or for Israel; for Mary or for the world.
We learn from the story of Hannah that God is a God of the unexpected. We learn that our own barrenness is not a limit for God. Our God is the God of life, of creation, and God can create new things where it doesn't seem possible. This theme is told not only in the story of Hannah, but in many places in the Bible. These stories used to give me hope that I would one day have children. I don't think that was false hope, because these stories do indicate that God can do anything. There are times when God answers our prayers for miracles with a resounding "yes." So you might think that I would turn my back on this story or say, "Well, God creates new possibilities sometimes, but not always."
But I find as I look at my life that God always and in everything is creating new possibilities for me and for all those who are willing to offer their broken, barren lives to God. There are times when we ask that those possibilities take a certain direction and God blesses our plan. That was the case with Hannah. But there are other times when God's possibilities are different than the ones we imagine. Sometimes they are so different that we can't see their glory until we are well along the road and look back. But I am here to tell you that when the faithful find themselves in the barren wasteland, God is always at work to create life where there seems to be none, streams in the desert, water from the rock.
We can all see God's new possibilities when God sends a miracle. But I want us to realize that God's answer of "no"is also the beginning of new possibilities. We tend to remember the great miracles where someone prayed and God answered "yes." People healed, barren women having children, demons driven out, the dead raised to life...that sort of thing. And when we get an answer of "no," sometimes we think God is punishing us or our faith isn't strong enough or that God isn't real.
Don't forget those in the Bible who also heard God's "no." Moses was told no, he could not enter the promised land. King David was told no, he could not build God's temple. Paul prayed for God to take away what Paul called "a thorn" in his flesh. God said, "no" and out of that "no" came the new possibility that Paul was miraculously stronger in his weakness. But most importantly, Jesus was told no. The night before Jesus is crucified, he prays in the Garden for God to come up with some other way to accomplish God's purpose without so much suffering. God says, "No," and God created from that terrible "no" the greatest possibility in the history of the world.
The thing that determines whether or not we get new possibilities is not whether God grants or denies our request. No matter which answer we get, we can receive new possibilities when we put all we have in God's hands. Hannah gets a "yes" to her prayer, but remember she does not keep the child for herself. Those of you who have children, try to imagine what she did. As soon as the child was weaned, which in that day was somewhere between two and three years of age, she took this precious son that God gave her and gave him to the priest in the temple to raise. Little Samuel was dedicated to God. She did not have any rights as a mother after that. There was no weekly visitation schedule. She saw him once a year. She knew that God creates new possibilities in order that God's kingdom of love and justice might be established, not just so that we can have something we want.
I think God gave new possibilities to Hannah because God knew that Hannah would be willing to share her new possibilities with the world. It was, perhaps, harder for Hannah to have a child that she had to give up than it would have been to remain childless in the first place. But her willingness to take the great gift that God gave her and turn it back over to God allowed her personal new possibilities to become the new possibilities for Israel and ultimately for the world through Jesus Christ.
The story of Hannah is not merely a story that shows how God works miracles when the faithful pray. It is a story that reminds us that our God creates possibilities when all seems bleak and brings hope even when there seems to be no earthly reason to believe God is at work. It also shows us that our new possibilities might lie in the prayers of someone else and that the prayers of an entire nation might be waiting on you to offer your very best gift back to God.
I don't know where each of you is in your life this morning, but I would guess that there are a number of you who are feeling barren or broken in some way...in some sort of wasteland looking for new possibilities. No one but God knows what those new possibilities are, but I can tell you that it is my experience that you can't get the new possibilities until you give the old possibilities up. That hurts...it's a death of sorts. But death is always the way to new life.
Every nook and cranny of Scripture has the same hard message lurking at the core...if you want to receive you have to give everything away, if you want to lead you have to go to the back of the line, if you want to live you have to die. Let it go...give it up...seek first the Kingdom of God and THEN all these things will be added unto you.
God has glorious new possibilities for every person here. Those new possibilities may arrive soon, they may come after months or even years of struggle. But they will come if, like Hannah, you seek God with all your heart. And when they do come, if like Hannah...or like Mary...you are willing to offer your personal blessing back to God, we will find that there are new possibilities for our church, for the Seacoast, for the world.
That's what stewardship is all about...recognizing that everything belongs to God...money, time, talent, children, spouses, you name it. The point of this story is not that God gave Hannah a son, but rather that Hannah gave her son back to God. It doesn't matter what you've been given; when you offer it back to God, it becomes a glorious new possibility. With God, weakness is strength and being empty merely makes room for you to be filled up. In God's hands my barrenness is as fruitful a gift as Hannah's son. It's not what you get, it's what you give back that matters.
I don't know whether this Thanksgiving finds you counting your blessings or counting the holes where you would like blessings to be. But I do know that if you offer back to God with gratitude whatever you've been given...blessings or holes...God will create order out of chaos, life out of death, new possibilities from a hopeless waste. It doesn't matter that God gave Hannah a son. It only matters that she gave him back.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson
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